Thursday, 18 September 2008

[46] Who put the 'ë' in Brontë...?

Earlier on this week, I went to visit my aunt, uncle and cousins at their house. One of my cousins was reading Jane Eyre (sadly, one of those compact 'retold' versions, by no matter). While we were chatting, my cousin asked my aunt what 'those two dots over the "e" in Brontë mean'. My aunt replied almost immediately that it was an umlaut, and looked at me for confirmation.

The situation reminded me of one of the strips from PHD Comics, about questions you shouldn't ask a graduate of a certain subject area. Well, it wasn't a tough question, but my answer (a haphazard description of the distinction between umlauts and diareses - and their varied usage) was far from suitable (I think they were more confused afterwards).

Nevertheless, the conversation moved on and all was well. I decided to look up the surname Brontë on wikipedia, and found a very interesting origin for the surname, and the 'ë':


"The Brontë family can be traced to the Irish clan mac Aedh Ó Proinntigh, which literally means 'son of Aedh, grandson of Proinnteach'. Aedh is a male name derived from Aodh, meaning "fire". "Proinnteach" ("the bestower") originated as a byname for a generous person. Literally meaning "banquet hall", the word is composed of the Gaelic proinn ("banquet") (a cognate of the Latin prandium ["meal"]) and teach ("house", "hall").

Ó Proinntigh was earlier anglicised as Prunty and sometimes Brunty. At some point, the father of the sisters, Patrick Brontë (born Brunty), conceived of the alternate spelling with the dieresis over the terminal "e" to indicate that the name is of two syllables. It is not known for certain what motivated him to do so, and multiple theories exist to account for the change. He may have wished to hide his humble origins. As a man of letters, he would have been familiar with classical Greek and chosen the name after the cyclop Brontes (literally 'thunder')."


I would not have guessed that Brontë was Irish in origin. It is interesting that it is one of the only common uses of the diaresis in English I can think of (besides its use in the New Yorker style guide for words such as 'reëlected').


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Wednesday, 17 September 2008

[45] The Monocle

I don't believe I've ever met a person from The Monocle's target audience. I don't think I ever will.





The magazine offers a blend of international current affairs, business, fashion and design, however there is an often explicit focus on the high class and high price. The first issue I bought, back in early summer, as part of my research into freelance opportunities, came with a pull-out 'Aviation Survey' supplement, detailing advances in the airline business, along with advertisements and listings for private jet dealers. You can usually judge a publication by its advertising space, and browsing through the glossier pages of The Monocle is a culture shock of affluence and luxury: Luis Vuitton bags, private cabins on Emirates flights, Cartier watches.

To further its position as the aesthete's first port of call for all things chic, they have recently extended their sphere of influence with a shop. Far from the usual branded nonsense, The Monocle have enlisted designers such as Finland-based Artek to make a Monocle stool (£195) and Denmark-based Fritz Hansen for a limited edition table (£3,000), as well as their own scent (£55) and bag range (£95-£195).




I often wonder how much of the magazine's style and pompousness is laced with self-effacing humour. Previous features, such as 'The Top 50 Things to improve your life' and a list of the top 25 most liveable cities in the world, are driven by a snootiness and familiarity with all things business class. Other magazines feature lists in order to stimulate debate, but we are often talking about movies, books or video games - not cities in the world. Not that Monocle readers will retire to pubs (they probably have trendy bars or drawing rooms) to discuss the issue, but if they did, I imagine their debates would sound absurd ('Oh no, not Copenhagen, I much preferred living in Kyoto'; 'I simply cannot live without my doorman/driver/day-bed').





So why do I read it? Surprisingly, it is not merely morbid curiosity that makes me fork out the (too expensive) £5 for the cover charge. Even though it does give the humbler reader a glimpse into a stratum of society they will never inhabit, it is still quite a vital and well-written publication. Even though it is woeful on the topics by which I am usually taken (here under the heading of 'culture', usually populated with short, snappy reviews perfect for dropping references in dinner conversations), its focus on international news, business and media is always worth a look. Recent feature articles on Finnish education, the Columbian newspaper trade and a recurring feature involving interviews with various American correspondants from around the world are eye-opening and informative. These are the pieces which occur rarely in national magazines and newspapers, and this is where The Monocle excels. So, whereas I doubt I will ever be able to afford the life that The Monocle aspires to (not that I would want to), it is nevertheless a good resource for the wannabe world citizen.

Visit The Monocle's website - here
Watch The Monocle's feature on Things to Improve Your Life - here

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

[44] Nick Catchdubs and Mr Ducker - 'Radio Friendly Unit Shifter'

I was browsing on Drowned in Sound the other day, and came across a (terribly written) review of a mixtape by Nick Catchdubs and Mr Ducker, called Radio Friendly Music Shifter.





Some musical know-it-alls will immediately notice the nod to Nirvana in the mix's title. This is fitting, as this mixtape (more in the hip-hop mould; tracks are spliced, tracked and edited as opposed to merely sequenced) focuses on 90s alternative rock as its basis.

The effect is fun, revealing and uneven. Undisputed classics mix with forgotten gems and duff tracks; samples from films and television shows (including Natural Born Killers, Ren and Stimpy, Clerks and The Simpsons) work as segues and punchlines, but the 'mashup' aspects of the mix are too infrequent and do little to arrest the listener. In place of a plaid-shirted Radio Soulwax is a nostalgic look back at a different time in popular music which is just crossing the threshold into 'classic' status (expect the obligatory 10 disc Rhino-released retrospective boxset soon).

As a compilation, it has its highs and lows. Canon-classics (Nirvana, Sonic Youth, The Breeders, Smashing Pumpkins) are no-brainers, but the nods to side-projects (Folk Implosion, Body Count), one-hit-wonders (Harvey Danger) and slipped-through-the-cracks (L7, Toadies) are more than welcome. The mix highlights the collective amnesia of the music business. It expresses disappointment that Soundgarden and Pearl Jam are huge and unavoidable (and, in the case of 'Black Hole Sun', overplayed), whereas the brilliant 'Hunger Strike' by supergroup Temple of the Dog is a mere curiosity - a footnote for the rock trivia crowd. Or shame that The Meat Puppets are remembered as 'the brothers Meat', from Nirvana's MTV Unplugged, when they wrote such barn-stormers as 'Backwater'.

This is obviously a personal compilation, as the lesser choices break the mood (diversions involving Rancid's / The Offspring's Californian punk, or the cockney rock of Supergrass, are a little jarring). Nevertheless, it can be excused. Compilations should be daring, subjective and eye-opening. Radio Friendly Music Shifter is all of these. And best of all, it is free. Check it out.

For Mishka's blog/press release for the mix, including download link - click here
For Nick Catchdub's myspace - click here

Tracklisting:

1. L7 - Pretend We're Dead
2. Sonic Youth - 100%
3. Folk Implosion - Natural One
4. King Missile - Detachable Penis
5. Beck - Beercan
6. Dinosaur Jr - Start Choppin'
7. Meat Puppets - Backwater
8. Pavement - Cut Your Hair
9. Nirvana - Sliver
10. Foo Fighters - I'll Stick Around
11. Porno For Pyros - Tahitian Moon
12. Temple Of The Dog - Hunger Strike
13. Tripping Daisy - I Got A Girl
14. Primus - Wynonas Big Brown Beaver
15. Body Count - There Goes The Neighborhood
16. Offspring - Come Out And Play
17. Rancid - Roots Radicals
18. Supergrass - Caught By The Fuzz
19. Weezer - El Scorcho
20. Green Day - Longview
21. Harvey Danger - Flagpole Sitta
22. Rage Against The Machine - Bulls On Parade
23. Bjork - Army Of Me
24. Soundgarden - Outshined
25. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Suck My Kiss
26. Tribe Called Quest - Oh My God (Live @ The Tibetan Freedom Concert)
27. Cypress Hill - How I Could Just Kill A Man (Live @ Woodstock '94)
28. House Of Pain - Shamrocks and Shennanigans
29. Cibo Matto - Know Your Chicken
30. Breeders - Cannonball
31. Smashing Pumpkins - Today
32. Butthole Surfers - Pepper
33. Sublime - Doin' Time
34. Soul Coughing - Super Bon Bon
35. Faith No More - A Small Victory
36. MC 900 Foot Jesus - If I Only Had A Brain
37. Everclear - You Make Me Feel Like A Whore
38. Toadies - Possum Kingdom

Monday, 15 September 2008

[43] 'We Can Be Together': American Countercultural Music, Film and the trappings of the mainstream

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This is an essay I wrote at the start of 2008, for a module I studied on American Counterculture in the 1950s and 1960s. I decided to focus on the music and film (covering Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, The Monkees and Easy Rider), with specific reference to the dilemma facing artists of becoming part of the conformist, corporate system, at the expense of their countercultural drive.

It's quite long, but I thought I would upload it anyway. I'm sure it will interest someone out there.

I've retitled it - 'We Can Be Together': American countercultural music, film and the trappings of the mainstream

Tell me what you think.


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The counterculture of the 1960s featured important innovations in the form and message of art. However, the means for production, promotion and wide distribution of such modes as music and film were in the hands of the major record labels or film production studios. This resulted in an intriguing, often conflicted, relationship between the necessarily provocative and inventive aspects of countercultural expression, and the ‘trappings’ of popular culture. Countercultural expression was often on a localised, individual, or minority scale, usually defined against the mainstream or dominant society; it was feared that actively courting with the mainstream, in the form of the music or film business, would result in compromising the message or expression itself. In the realm of music, the shift from performing as the primary avenue of dissemination, to record sales and marketing, presents a potential conflict in terms of the artist’s integrity as the ‘art’ shifts to ‘product’.

There was a similarly difficult situation in the film industry, where the dominance of the major film studios was seen to stifle the creativity of the medium. However, in the late 1960s, a series of films directed by younger directors, starring younger stars and about relevant issues, brought about a renaissance in Hollywood, and the old generation of studio bosses gave wave to a new group of producers more happy to grant freedom of expression to countercultural and visionary newcomers. This essay will primarily focus on the musical career of Bob Dylan, but, by way of comparison or contrast, further references will be drawn from both music and film.


Indeed, this complicated relationship between the popular and the countercultural is especially seen in Bob Dylan’s career. In fact, it can be argued that his shrewd and profitable courting with the mainstream has been subsumed by cult and myth. As one of the most influential artists in Western music of the 20th century, Dylan’s reputation in terms of furthering the form is secure; however, his public image is almost by nature conflicted. Wilfred Mellers displays this multi-layered image, introducing his study of Dylan by describing him as ‘a singing poet-composer, he is a quasi-folk musician, an artist and a commercial operator’ (1984, p.13). Dylan’s particular flashpoints of mythology and controversy have all involved the clash of the precious and the popular; the most prominent of these is his progression from acoustic, socially-minded folk music, to electrified rock with increasingly abstract, personal lyrics. The period between March 1965 and July 1966, during which time Dylan released the albums Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and had landmark performances at the Newport Folk Festival and on tour in Europe, was one of the more controversial career moves in 20th century music. The hostilities that greeted the incorporation of electric guitars and rock-inspired arrangements were motivated by the apprehension that Dylan had abandoned ‘serious’ music, in favour of fame and fortune.





The electric sound of Rock and Roll was still a young art-form, and did not have the sophistication of other musical genres, such as folk or jazz. However, the style did have a young following, and generated a lot of money through record sales. This let to rock music being stigmatised due to its association with manufactured, mainstream tastes, and by extension, ‘corruption and lies’ (Marcus, 1997, xii). However, critics have stressed that the decision to ‘go electric’ was primarily due to artistic concerns on Dylan’s part. The popular account goes that he was ‘bored’ with the topical, self-righteous concerns of the political folk movement, and developed a more insular, personal approach in his lyrics (Ewen, 1970, p.360). This was first exhibited on the provocatively-titled album Another Side of Bob Dylan, but came into fruition with his electric albums. This period saw a broadening of Dylan’s base of influence; where originally he had styled himself on the dust bowl folk tradition of Woody Guthrie, by 1964, he was taking more inspiration from poetry, from Rimbaud to the beats. These ‘new creative impulses and new themes’ were accompanied by a musical transformation which happened to ‘cater to a new audience’ (op. cit.). Indeed, songs such as ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Visions of Johanna’ show a distinct development in Dylan’s use of imagery and absurd metaphor.





However, even though the retrospective consensus admits that Dylan’s shift to rock music was an important and creative statement in the evolution of music as a popular art form, the immaculate figure of Dylan as an apathetic hipster, a genius following his muse, is not completely suitable. The mythology of Dylan, and his impact, is linked with crucial decisions and developments in terms of marketing, publicity and business. Although Dylan’s popular success did not strictly come until the single release of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ in 1965, his compositions had been successful in the charts beforehand, recorded by other artists. Indeed, his early protest song, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, from the 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was initially released by Peter, Paul and Mary, a folk-pop group signed to Warner Bros records. This recording was a considerable hit, selling 2 million discs and eventually winning the Grammy award for Best Folk Recording of the year (Ewen, 1970, p.358).

Dylan’s parallel career as a popular songwriter hints at the business-savvy undertones in his career; the publishing royalties from these covers brought him a comfortable income, yet still allowed him to record and perform on his own terms, within the community that suited him, without the concerns of a chart musician. It is intriguing that this phase, or facet, of Dylan’s career is not more openly discussed; even though publishing deals were common at the time, as such respected singer-songwriters as Carole King and Randy Newman found initial success as professional pop song-writers, the subsequent mythology of Bob Dylan, as the post-modern troubadour, often neglects to mention these early displays of mainstream pop sensibilities. It is important to note that, despite Dylan’s subsequent rise to monumental distinction, some of these early compositions are just as, if not more, recognised as recorded by other artists.

Examples of this are found in the early career of The Byrds, whose 1965 debut album, named after the cover ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, featured 4 Dylan songs. The title track reached #1 in the Billboard Charts, and The Byrds would include at least one Dylan cover on nearly all their 1960s albums. Even though they were influential in their own right, especially in Roger McGuinn’s chiming 12 string guitar sound, The Byrds’ approach to Dylan’s music, and subsequent success, reveals a ‘pop-marketability’ that was initially denied to the songwriter himself due to his ‘idiosyncratic’ performance style (Starr and Waterman, 2003, p.278). The pristine vocal harmonies, coupled with the chiming guitars and tight rhythm section, presented a much smoother performance of the songs. This is particularly found in their 1965 single of the song ‘All I Really Want To Do’, originally on Dylan’s 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. In place of the original’s shrill yodel is a palatable ascending harmony, and one verse is replaced with a minor key middle eighth; the composer’s reaction was positive ‘wow, man, you can even dance to that!’ (Mr Tambourine Man, reissue liner notes, Rogan, 1996, p.12). This performance, along with the soulful rendition by Cher released in the same year, manages to somewhat neuter the rough, unpolished quality of the original, while highlighting an inherent pleasantness of the lyrics:


I don't want to fake you out,
Take or shake or forsake you out,
I ain't lookin' for you to feel like me,
See like me or be like me.
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

(1964)



This extract also displays the shift in Dylan’s lyrical themes, away from the ‘finger pointin’ songs’ of the earlier albums, and towards the more introspective or personal exhibited in the title Another Side…; as well as the rejection of his political and social responsibilities, in ‘I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me…’. This is all expressed in a central conceit against romantic or sexual conformity. Indeed, the roots of his stylistic change are apparent in the music, also, as he would draw on songs from the album in electric contexts later in his career (‘I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)’, ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’).





This dichotomy between art and business is associated with Dylan’s involvement with his manager, Albert Grossman. Christopher Gair, in his assessment of Dylan’s relationship between the music business and his artistic expression, stresses that his freedom to ‘appear… uninterested’ in such matters as making money and pursuing ‘greater fame and financial rewards than could be provided by the relatively small folk community’ was down to the work of Grossman (2007, p.168-9). The important distinction between business and expression, as well as the necessity for the artist to seem to focus solely on the art at hand, is related to the debate surrounding Dylan’s turn to rock music. The crucial justifications on behalf of critics and fans of Dylan’s rejection of acoustic folk were based on the belief that he was being ‘true to himself and his artistic instincts’ (Ewen, 1970, p.360). This may be true, but the amount of marketing behind his art is just as important; a memo from within Columbia, contained in the liner notes for the 1991 retrospective, The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3: Rare and Unreleased, reveals the hidden, corporate and commercial, powers behind the music:

- Contacting radio personalities in your area that have “Americana”-type shows and pointing out to them the merits of featuring Bob Dylan in an American Heritage theme.

- Getting in touch with the casual wear buyers in department stores and men’s stores and convincing them to use Bob Dylan display pieces in their clothing displays. His dress may be considered “kooky” by conventional standards, but kooky or not he is a motivating force of the youth of today, and they like to emulate their leaders.

- Contacting the little theatre groups and drama groups in your area to convince them that readings of the lyrics of Bob Dylan songs would be presenting modern poetry in its finest form.

- Getting in touch with the local newspaper culture editors and showing them the merits of doing a piece built around Bob Dylan, using a changing times theme.

- Putting your ads in your local newspapers on Bob Dylan [in] unusual areas of the paper such as on the sport page, the women’s section or even the financial section...after all, he does mean money...for us at least.


(The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3, Liner Notes, 1991, p.20)


The tension is plainly laid out, the actions of those who are interested in the ‘promotion’ of ‘product’ to ‘the youth of today’; the artist who means ‘money’. Also interesting to note is the focus on the aspects of Dylan’s now accepted mythology: his music as part of ‘American Heritage’, his lyrics as ‘modern poetry’, his place in a ‘changing times theme’. Indeed, this is not to the detriment of his standing as a cultural figure, as his music and recorded output do exhibit these features, even if it does go against previous statements against consumer culture:


Advertising signs that con you
Into thinking you're the one
That can do what's never been done
That can win what's never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.

(‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, 1965)



Nevertheless, the importance of marketing and publicity must be recognised. In light of this, even though Dylan’s development in the 1960s may not have been a ‘compromise’ to a new audience or to the demands and needs of the record label, it can be seen how the agencies and instruments available to a popular musical artist, signed to Columbia, were integral in forming the ‘serious’ creative Dylan persona. Viewing his output in the context of marketing and the popular music business further reveals this ‘commercial operator’ side. Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde was the first rock double album, which, while a testament to the prolific and intensely inspired artist, was an expensive extravagance that may not have been allowed to other artists, or those outside of the shelter of major record labels like Columbia.

Of course, Dylan made good use of the freedom and opportunity his record label offered; using the popular media of the rock business in order to ‘turn the tables’ (Mellers, 1984, p.141). He was also one of the forerunners of the musical artist whose career was mostly sustained on cohesive album ‘statements’ as opposed to pop singles and albums created around such singles. Indeed, besides ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, and a few other singles (‘Positively Fourth Street’), Dylan’s output was heavily weighted towards albums (Starr and Waterman, 2003, p.284). Despite this focus, 1967 saw the release of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, a compilation of singles and notable tracks.





However, the cultural mythology behind Bob Dylan was not completely created through the release of product. Another controversial point in his career came in June 1966, after the intense period of inspiration and touring, where Dylan crashed his motorcycle and, during an 18 month recuperation period, ceased to release new material or appear in the public eye. Indeed, this period is still a topic of debate, with biographers such as Howard Sounes approaching the crash as a ‘means of escape’ from the pressures of touring (Scherman, ‘The Bob Dylan Motorcycle-Crash Mystery’, 2006). However, whether this hiatus was self-imposed or not, it had an important effect on Dylan’s public standing. As this was during the period where a relevant or contemporary artist was almost expected to release one or two albums a year, along with touring and public appearances, this retreat from the public eye effectively concluded the most influential and tumultuous years of his career. This disappearance also dissolved the erstwhile popular leanings, and allowed for an artistic progression away from the pressures of the music business. The hiatus contained a residence in a rented house, called 'The Big Pink', where Dylan would spend days writing and recording new songs with The Band.

This period was prolific, and as well as writing material that would eventually appear on The Band’s 1968 debut album, Music From the Big Pink, the group recorded well over 100 songs. These recordings, which became known as ‘The Basement Tapes’, were not meant for commercial release, although it is worth noting that these sessions produced songs that were eventually made into hits by acts such as Peter, Paul and Mary and Manfred Mann. Nevertheless, deciding not to release these sessions in an official capacity led to what is perhaps one of the more countercultural aspects of Dylan’s recording history: the rise of the bootleg album.

Recordings from the Big Pink sessions, along with live recordings from Dylan’s tumultuous 1966 tour of Europe, were unofficially released under such titles as The Great White Wonder and In ’66 There Was. The bootleg is by nature countercultural: an illegal enterprise, usually taken from unpolished or rough sessions which are certainly not ‘product’, which is bought and analysed by a close-knit community who communicated outside of the mainstream music channels. Even though there was always an element of depth to a fan community’s approach to Dylan, seen through the obsessive analysis of his lyrics, bootlegs gave a counterpoint to the public personality of the artist and were infused with a sense of ‘legend’ (Marcus, 1997, xiv).





Indeed, the retreat from the mainstream music scene cut Dylan off from the burgeoning psychedelic rock movement of 1967, which included bands such as Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, who had been influenced by his run of albums. John Wesley Harding, the calm, country-inspired follow up to Blonde on Blonde, was released in late 1967; Dylan’s style was sparse, allegorical and enigmatic, exhibited in the song ‘All Along the Watchtower’:


"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."

(1967)



This approach was very different from that of the new psychedelic rock bands, and it is thought that this marker of distinction allowed Dylan to transcend not only the mainstream music culture, but also the counterculture of the time, allowing his expression to be analysed on its own terms outside of other contexts (Marcus, 1997, xviii). Indeed, the music business had moved on; this new wave of artists was negotiating the same relationship between mainstream and counterculture as Dylan.

Jefferson Airplane, in particular, were in a similar position. They were the first of the San Francisco psychedelic rock bands to sign to a major record label, and they received an unprecedented $20,000 advance from RCA in 1965 (Starr and Waterman , 2003, p.290). By 1967, they were, like Dylan, bringing countercultural ideas and innovations into the Billboard charts, with the two hits ‘Somebody to Love’ and ‘White Rabbit’. The latter, with its rejection of a conventional verse-chorus-verse popular song structure, is based around a hazy crescendo, which, coupled with the lyrics inspired by Lewis Carol’s ‘Alice’ novels, suggests an LSD-fuelled drug trip.

Indeed, it is through expression like this that Jefferson Airplane remained a countercultural force, despite controversial commercial decisions, such as an advertising campaign for Levi’s (Gair, 2007, p.172). One such display of defiance against the dominant strands of society is found in the 1969 single ‘We Can Be Together’, which is a rallying cry for co-operation in a culture ruled by ‘private property’ and ‘walls’ (Kantner, 1969). The song features Jefferson Airplane’s trademark harmonies, which, unlike the Byrds, retains a sense of independence in the whole, as each singer has recognisable singing ‘personalities’. This promotes the importance of the individual in the ‘society’ of the band; indeed, each performer exhibits distinct talents and techniques. More famously, the song contains one of the first uses of the word ‘motherfucker’ in a popular song, which was allegedly inspired by the New York based anarchist group, the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers (‘We Can Be Together… Songfacts’).

In the spirit of Gitlin’s idea of the artist smuggling the subversive into the mainstream, the band performed the song on the Dick Cavett show, references and swearwords included, the first televised used of the word ‘fuck’ on American television (‘The Dick Cavett Show’, August 19, 1969). Despite these undeniably important statements, they are complicated by the business side of things: indeed, Starr and Waterman call Grace Slick ‘the biggest celebrity of the group’ (2003, p.296). Equally, a Robert Christgau review of a live performance by the Jefferson Airplane in New York in 1970 questions the intentions behind the group’s music:


All of us out there, she said, we had paid money for our seats, and with that money the Airplane hired the Cadillac that would protect them from the crowd after the concert..

(‘We Should Be Together’)



The flaunting of profits made from ticket sales reveals the money-making background to the artist; and indeed, the hostility between artist and audience documented in the article is the complete opposite of the utopian, progressive message in their songs.





In the light of these concerns that faced the artist in the popular music world, it is interesting to see the equivalent experience of countercultural artists in the movie business. Like the music industry, the modes of production, development and release was controlled by a small number of big companies. However, whereas record labels and music managers would exert influence in the more business-related side of their client’s career, the position of the film studio was different.

Indeed, the music business has ‘clients’ to promote, while the film business is not ruled by the notion of touring or the public profile of the director or writer. Furthermore, in the late 1960s, Hollywood was in a transitional period, which would become known in the 1970s as ‘New Hollywood’. This new wave of films, which included Easy Rider (dir. Dennis Hopper, D., 1969), Bonnie and Clyde (dir. Penn, A., 1967) and M.A.S.H (dir. Altman, R., 1970), featured new techniques and representations, and introduced a new generation of directors, actors and writers. Indeed, the opportunity for funding for these films was provided by a new generation of younger producers and studio bosses, who were more attuned to the cultural climate of the time.

Whereas old Hollywood producers, such as David O. Selznick, would exert tremendous creative control over their films, this new wave were more comfortable granting autonomy to these ‘filmmakers’ (Biskind, 1998, p.14-15). One such example of this was the film Easy Rider, whose producer and star, Peter Fonda, and director, Dennis Hopper, were granted unprecedented freedom in production, from a deal with Columbia pictures, on a budget of around $360,000 (1998, p.61).





This freedom probably would not have been granted if not for Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who, through their RayBert production company, mediated between the filmmakers and the studio. Schneider and Rafelson had made a name for themselves through masterminding the Monkees television and musical phenomenon, and had subsequently turned their attentions to film. The reputation for making money, coupled with the connections within the business, put them in a position to help others. Interestingly, the Monkees project was part of the business-minded, marketing-fuelled popular culture that was disparaged by critics and artists alike.

However, a countercultural depth was shown when the Rafelson-directed film, Head (1968), was released. This film, in its rejection of narrative structure and coherence, also contained pointed satire not only of the Monkees themselves, but of the self-righteous musical counterculture itself. An early part of the film features the Monkees singing a chant, titled ‘Ditty Diego’ on the soundtrack album, which includes the following lines:


Hey, hey, we are the Monkees
You know we love to please
A manufactured image
With no philosophies
...
You say we're manufactured
To that we all agree
So make your choice and we'll rejoice
In never being free

(Nicholson and Rafelson, 1968)



There is also a cameo in the film from Frank Zappa, an enigmatic figure in his own right, as a countercultural artist who actively satirised the social aspects of many of his contemporaries. In his cameo, Zappa, delivering his lines in a sarcastic tone, disparages Davy Jones for neglecting his music, as ‘the youth of America depends on [him] to show the way’. The fact that this film, also released by Columbia Pictures, so actively presents and satirises both popular and radical aspects of the artistic process, is perhaps a marker of the relative freedom afforded to filmmakers.





This disparity between the countercultural forces of music and film is also revealed in a particular anecdote from the production of Easy Rider. Originally, the score was to be provided by Crosby, Stills and Nash, a super group consisting of previous members of The Byrds, The Hollies and Buffalo Springfield. The group were one of the more major acts that performed at Woodstock, and appeared on the same episode of ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ as Jefferson Airplane. However, Hopper reacted aggressively to the band’s choice of transport, a limousine; the director reportedly told them ‘anybody who rides in a limo can’t comprehend my movie,’ and threatened them with bodily harm (1998, p.72). This rejection of a popular music group is testament not only to the sincere approach of the filmmakers behind Easy Rider, but also the amount of freedom and autonomy they were granted.

The alternative to Crosby, Still and Nash was a soundtrack made up of tracks by various artists, including the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Steppenwolf and a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, by Roger McGuinn; this soundtrack was the first of its kind. The musical selections were also relevant to the film’s countercultural representation of drug use, the pursuit of freedom, and dissatisfaction with the values of mainstream society.





Indeed, despite the radical, non-conformist elements of Easy Rider, its non-traditional narrative, its European art-film editing, it still became a hit, grossing over $19 million domestically, one of the highest of its year (Biskind, 1998, p.74). It was also nominated for two Academy Awards, and Hopper won the ‘First Film’ award at the Cannes Film Festival. The marketing behind the film wasn’t out of the ordinary; but it certainly wasn’t as underhand, aggressive and consumerist as that of Columbia’s strategy for Dylan. Instead, the film relied on traditional channels of promotion; one poster quotes a number of positive reviews, from publications ranging from The New Yorker and Time Magazine, to Cosmopolitan. The relationship between the mainstream, popular culture and the countercultural, artistic concerns in this case is certainly more conducive to expression.





Altogether, in the 1960s, the boundaries between certain aspects of the counterculture and the American popular culture were blurred. This crossover offered these artists new modes of production, distribution and marketing which could potentially harm their creative integrity. It must be stressed, though, that this period in film history saw an unprecedented amount of freedom and control given to certain filmmakers. On the other hand, the music business at this time saw the counterculture as a more direct form of profit; the artists were allowed freedom to express themselves, but the framework of capitalism and marketing was perhaps more dominant. Nevertheless, as with Bob Dylan, the avenues provided by this relationship with popular culture still allowed reinvention, innovation and an air of mystery.





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Works Cited:

- Bauldie, J. (1991) ‘Liner Notes to
The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 by Bob Dylan’. Sony Music Entertainment.
- Biskind, P. (1998)
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. London: Bloomsbury.
- Christgau, R. (1970) ‘We Should Be Together’. http://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/bk-aow/airplane.php
- Dylan, B. (1964) 'All I Really Want To Do', from
Another Side of Bob Dylan . http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/really.html
- Dylan, B. (1965) 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)', from
Bringing it All Back Home. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/itsalright.html
- Dylan, B. (1967) 'All Along the Watchtower', from
John Wesley Harding. http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/watchtower.html
- Ewen, D. (1970)
Great Men of American Popular Song. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall Inc.
- Gair, C. (2007)
The American Counterculture. Edinburgh University Press.
- Kantner, P. (1969) 'We Can Be Together', from
Volunteers. http://www.stlyrics.com/songs/j/jeffersonairplane1994/wecanbetogether94239.html
- Marcus, G. (1997)
Invisible Republic. London: Picador.
- Mellers, W. (1984)
A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan. London: Faber Faber.
- Nicholson, J. and Rafelson, B. (1968) 'Ditty Diego', from
Head. http://themonkees.lyrics.info/dittydiegowarchant.html
- Rogan, J. (1996) ‘Song Notes to Reissue of
Mr Tambourine Man by the Byrds’, Sony Music Entertainment.
- Scherman, T. (2006). ‘The Bob Dylan Motorcycle-Crash Mystery’. http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/web/20060729-bob-dylan-motorcycle-woodstock-methamphetamine-robert-shelton-howard-sounes-ed-thaler.shtml
- Starr, L. and Waterman, C. (2003)
American Popular Music. Oxford University Press.
- ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ (1969) August 19. ABC. 1969 19 Aug.
- "We Can Be Together" Songfacts’ http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1678


Filmography

-
Bonnie and Clyde. (1968) Film. Director: Arthur Penn. USA: Warner Bros
-
Easy Rider. (1969) Film. Director: Dennis Hopper. USA: Columbia Pictures
-
Head. (1968) Film. Director: Bob Rafelson. USA: Columbia Pictures
-
M.A.S.H. (1970) Film. Director: Robert Altman. USA: 20th Century Fox

Sunday, 14 September 2008

[42] Superman/Batman #51 Review

I've never been too interested in the team-up series Superman/Batman, but after reading a positive review of issue #51 on IGN Comics (and on the look out for more monthlies to read), I decided to pick it up.





It's the first of a two-issue arc called 'Lil' Leaguers', and it is one of the purest doses of fun I've read from a major series. The basic idea is that simpler, cuter versions of Bats, Supes and the Justice League are transported from their alternate dimension into the 'real world' by Mr Mxyzptlk.

What could be a horrific prospect for all stuck-up fanboys turns out to be a perky, fresh diversion. What's more, its quirky humour is grounded in satirical, meta-fictional aspects, revealing a great deal of intelligence behind the writing of Michael Green and Mike Johnson. Many of the best elements of the comic are when the gloomy, grave pretensions of the most recent DCU story arcs are contrasted with an admittedly 'cutesy', yet nonetheless entertaining take. Stand-out moments include the retellings of both Batman and Superman's respective origin stories and a quick-fire dialogue between the characters. The writing is great, and is perfectly-realised by Rafael Albuquerque. His designs for the lil ' heroes explode with personality and charm, and he makes special effort to render the 'real' heroes with a more accepted style. Seeing the marriage of two very distinct artistic traditions is a joy to look at. His composition, too, is impeccable, especially in the introductory pages and the origin stories.





It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the primary idea behind this comic is that the current age of comics (filled to bursting with big events, paradigm shifts and continuity obsession) needs to reconnect with the more innocent, newcomer-friendly approach of the Silver Age (a concern expressed by Robert Kirkman, amongst others). The alternate-Batman is a brilliant pastiche of Frank Miller's Dark Knight, at one point declaring 'I'm the goshdarn Batman' (bringing full focus on the shallow use of language in determining content - a very topical concern in Miller's case). An interesting binary is set up between the 'real' world of the 'adult' heroes, and the 'alternate' world of the 'baby' heroes. This, too, works to interrogate the style and gospel of the DCU, reflecting back on the concept of a 'superhero' comic aspiring to realism. But equally, as seen in the alternate origin stories for the lil' leaguers, a cutesy, Teletubbies-ish approach, is simply absurd.





It is refreshing to read something that is so unabashedly entertaining. It is sad to read on many comments threads that people will pass it up because it is too 'kiddie-fied', as the parody is rich with relevant issues. As with any good parody, it teases the audience into looking at the genre in question with a critical eye (something lost on recent spoof movies, like the '...Movie' series). Hopefully, the next issue will cement this 'Lil' League' story into a noteworthy gem.

Superman/Batman #51 is out now. Thanks to The Nerdy Bird for some of the scans used.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

[41] Arkham Asylum, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean [Great Comics]

This is an attempt to write a piece on a comic book. I've never tried this before, so sorry if it is shaky, unpolished or uncertain. It's a tentative first entry in what might become a regular feature, called 'Great Comics'. We'll see. Tell me what you think.

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The summer is over. In the cinematic world, The Dark Knight is owning 2008. 6 weeks into its record-breaking run, it is still in the Top 5 box office draws in the USA and UK (and probably elsewhere). In light of this success, the usual speculation from various media outlets and online discussion forums occurs, as people wonder whether this enthusiasm for the cinematic Batman will translate into renewed growth for the Batman comic, or even the comics industry itself.

In a recent interview with IGN, regarding his work on both the Batman series and the Final Crisis crossover event, Grant Morrison tackled this issue, saying that --

'...the success of the Dark Knight, like the success of any superhero movie, doesn't affect the sales of the monthly comic one bit. We always sell more trades of stuff like The Killing Joke or Arkham Asylum but numbers on the monthly issues don't really change when a film comes out.'

This is interesting, as Morrison is currently reinvigorating not only the Batman series, but the DC Universe as a whole. His work, a masterful compromise between established properties and creator-owned projects, has made him into an industry icon. Way back in the late-80s, when Morrison was in the process of graduating from his British period (when he wrote for 2000 AD) to the giddy heights of DC, he collaborated with artist-director-jazz-musician Dave McKean on Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.

It is interesting that this graphic novel is singled out as one of the best selling of Batman's back catalogue. On the one hand, the basic premise of the book is quite simple: various characters from Batman's Rogues Gallery successfully take over the titular institution. They have one request, that Caped Crusader himself take a stroll through Arkham's supposedly-haunted, certainly-haunting corridors. On the other, it is a frightening, compelling, brilliant, yet divisive work from two undeniably visionary minds. Possibly the closest to an 'avant-garde' Batman ever published.

In conjunction with the primary Batman storyline, Morrison provides a backstory for both the asylum and its founder, Amadeus Arkham. The asylum is a mainstay of Batman lore, but this is one of the first fully-fleshed attempts at an origin story. The focus flits between the two strands, allowing for enough parallels and reveals throughout. Morrison's genius and complexity is shown in the unique characterisations of the book's cast, and his attention to depth and detail.


Morrison cherry picks characters both familiar (The Joker, Two-Face) and relatively obscure (Doctor Destiny, Black Mask, Maxie Zeus), giving unique twists as appropriate, relating their issues and characteristics to psychological theory. By far the most substantial are the portrayals of The Joker and Harvey Dent, both receiving the best ideas in the book. With the former, Morrison introduces his idea of 'super-sanity', a multiple-personality disorder which results in the Joker re-creating himself to fit his surroundings and survival (a concept he still toys with in recent Batman issues such as #663 'The Clown At Midnight'). This idea is still in its nascent stages, and is little more than a superficial alibi to explain away all of the disparate, incompatible Jokers from the past, present and future. The Joker of Arkham Asylum is a sexual bully, a mind-game mastermind; traits cemented by a truly horrific, garishly unsettling makeover from McKean.





Equally, the book's portrayal of Harvey Dent is unconventional, and filled with pathos. Not the twisted avenger of other traditions, here he is a broken man ruled by obsessive-compulsive disorder, needing to consult his obsession before every task, even going to the bathroom. One of my favourite passages in the book involves Doctor Adams explaining her approach in reforming Dent --

'As a matter of fact, we've successfully tackled Harvey's obsession with duality. I'm sure you're familiar with this silver dollar - scarred on one side, unmarked on the other. He used to make all his decisions with this, as though it somehow represented the contradictory halves of his personality. What we did was wean him off the coin and onto a die. That gave him six decision options instead of the former two. He did so well with the die that we've been able to move him onto a pack of tarot cards. That's seventy-eight options open to him now, Batman. Next, we plan to introduce him to the I-Ching. Soon he'll have a completely functional judgemental facility that doesn't rely so much on black and white absolutes.'

Nevertheless, Dent plays an integral part in the book, especially at the end. One of the only 'reveals' contained in the narrative involves him, and is utterly effective and moving.





Morrison saw Arkham Asylum as a critique of, and alternative to the 'grim and gritty' absolutes as seen in Miller's Dark Knight comics - a tradition which still holds firm today. Nolan's Batman films, for all their style, production values and impact, are very simple on a thematic level (usually based on dualities or parallels). There is nothing wrong with that, but there is something commendable in Morrison's literate, poetic approach in this book, which is top-and-tailed by quotes from Lewis Carroll, whose subtitle ('A Serious House on Serious Earth') is taken from a poem by Philip Larkin. Morrison openly references disparate philosophical or theoretical works in the text - from Jung to Aleister Crowley. His suggested themes run the gamut from the intensely-psychological to the spiritual and scriptural. It is certainly a different beast.

The Batman of Arkham Asylum is not the grizzled, determined badass of The Dark Knight Returns, the realistic, babysteps-hero of Year One (both by Frank Miller) or the withdrawn detective of Loeb/Sale's The Long Halloween. Instead, Morrison writes and McKean paints a Batman who is neurotic and psychologically fragile - an ultimately weak misanthrope. This spin on the Batman character is quite unique and brilliant, although is sure to offend or upset some readers. In Arkham Asylum, Batman is cast as a shadowy, uncertain figure, far from the heroism of more traditional depictions. One notorious example is a four page sequence, where Batman is gripped by fear and trauma - of the asylum, of his parents' death, of harsh comments made by his mother to a young Bruce - and is driven to self-harm, pushing shards of glass through his hand, in order to cope. Furthermore, he is seen peeking through cracks in doorways, lurking in shadows (more hiding than stalking). He recoils in disgust at the disease-riddled Clayface, and pushes the wheelchair-bound Doctor Destiny down a flight of stairs. This oppressively dark, troubled take on Batman is unforgettable, and the art does well to render Morrison's world.



Dave McKean is probably best known for either his work with Neil Gaiman (mainly on the covers for Sandman, or their collaborations such as Mirrormask or The Wolves in the Walls) or his rock album covers (he's worked with musicians from Buckethead to Alice Cooper, Dream Theater to Fear Factory). His distinctive style is immediately recognisable, a nightmarish blend of photography, painting and digital manipulation; a multimedia answer to Bacon, Giger, Dali and German Expressionism. His art serves the book well in crafting a compelling, unforgettable atmosphere. His surrealist, impressionistic, sometimes gratuitous excesses are perfect for highlighting and exploiting the violence and trauma in Morrison's writing, as well as creating distinct personalities and themes for not only the parallel storylines, but for the individual characters as well (special mention must also go to Gaspar Saladino's superlative lettering work in this regard).

However, McKean's art is like too-sweet confection. While his ornate, busy style is very much suited for covers and exhibition work, it is not so successful in conveying narrative. The intricacies and depth of Morrison's script - it's intertextuality, themes, influences - are often overwhelmed by the sensory bombardment of the illustrations. Luckily for the astute reader, the 15th anniversary edition includes Morrison's final draft script in full as an appendix. It is more like a cross between a thesis and a film treatment with its various notes on the resonances and themes at play during any scene. A more rounded picture of Morrison's intentions for the book becomes clear. Indeed, for an extra, it is well-presented, with extra comments from an older Morrison, and a joy to read.

Arkham Asylum is a tricky customer. A love-it-or-hate-it slice of writing married to a love-it-or-hate-it style of artwork. Even though personal preferences may differ, it is an undeniably important work in the canon. Batman has rarely been this psychological, conceptual or purely artistic. It is a celebration of the comics medium, of the 'graphic novel', that such rich thematic content can be combined to equally rich visual content; that those typical tropes of the trade (action, suspense, mystery, even traditional narrative aspects) are forsaken in favour of depth and creativity of very different kinds. Indeed, it is unlike other Batman big-hitters, which offer (mostly) neat twists on Hollywood or Hard-Boiled storytelling (The Dark Knight, for all its quality, is still a Big Hollywood Blockbuster). To find an effective comparison for Arkham Asylum, you'd have to venture into the murky realms of 'art-house' cinema - it is a Lynch-Batman. It is quite alone in the vast collection of mainstream hero comics. I am still puzzled as to why it is so popular.





Monday, 8 September 2008

[40] Castle Crashers Review

Over the last month, Xbox Live Arcade has been experiencing a renaissance in quality gaming. With retro tributes (Bionic Commando Rearmed), suped-up sequels (Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2) and entirely original content (Braid), there's certainly a case to be made that at the moment the online service is offering more quality than its store-based, physical counterpart. Castle Crashers, developed by flash-game graduates and Newgrounds.com masterminds The Behemoth, can sit proudly alongside these downloadable essentials.


From Wild Tyme



Castle Crashers is immediately reminiscent of the side-scrolling beat 'em ups of the early 1990s. Games such as Streets of Rage, Final Fight and Battletoads on the consoles, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons and Captain Commando in the arcades, were hugely popular at the time of their release, offering intense blasts of mayhem coupled with capacity for co-operative play. However, with the advent of 3D gaming, this genre, like many others, fell by the wayside. Modern equivalents ingameplay, such as the Devil May Cry or the rebooted Ninja Gaiden series, follow a strictly solo path. Lots of the fun of early '90s gaming has been pushed online, and into combative, as opposed to co-operative,multiplayer modes - with deathmatch shooting games being the biggest draws.

Castle Crashers is billed as a 'four player adventure', stressing the co-operative element. Furthermore, the game allows both online and local connectivity, so you can hook up with a crosstown buddy, or have some guys over for a 'pizza 'n play' session, whichever suits your style.

Speaking of style, artist Dan Paladin's distinctive graphics make the game stand out. Like The Behemoth's previous game Alien Hominid (a brilliant shooter in the vein of Metal Slug or Contra), Paladin's crude, rude design work gives Castle Crashers bags of personality, character and humour, especially when twinned with programmer Tom Fulp's leftfield approach to tried-and-tested gaming mechanics. This approach, like the rich fantasy artwork of Braid, shows an alternative to the high-definition 3D textures of recent blockbuster games - revealing an altogether different tradition for design.





The story, like most pick-up-and-play games, is minimal. Four knights are having a rad night of partying, when a gaggle of barbarians, led by an evil wizard, steals their chicks, the princesses. This kicks off an epic adventure, traversing marshes, deserts, snowy tundra and even spaceships. Castle Crashers won't win any awards for its storytelling, but from the beginning it is obvious that what little story there is only exists as a springboard for more creative and imaginative work from the designers (including some very memorable boss battles).

Superlative design work and functional narrative aside, Castle Crashers features an important, brilliant tweaking of the side-scrolling beat 'em up formula. The core controls, and gameplay, is still the same. You will constantly move to the right of the screen, beating bad guys with a combination of light or heavy attacks (button-mashing does work, although there are combos on offer). There is also a magic option, with each playable character (4 at the start, whereas over 20 can be unlocked) being given a unique power (fire, ice, lightning, etc). The Behemoth have superimposed an RPG-style framework on top of this simple premise: through battling more enemies, characters gain experience and level up, and players can spend points to improve their character's stats. This isn't as detailed as in true RPGs, such as Mass Effect, but it allows players to customise and personalise their avatars, so they can specialise in magic, agility, defense or strength. Equally, there are pickups such as weapons and animal orbs (a little sidekick who helps out), to bring yet more individuality.


From Wild Tyme



These additions give extra longetivity to the game - the extra items must be discovered, the extra characters must be unlocked, and there's the possibility of maxing out all abilities and reaching level 99. The main story mode, spread over a Super Mario World-style overworld map, is a breeze to play through, and can be finished in an easy 5 hours (genre veterans will barely break a sweat). However, Castle Crashers is a real 'hang-out' game, and those who are taken by its charms will want to make a habit of playing it with friends either online or local. With this game, The Behemoth have succeeded in crafting a fun, fresh spin on a criminally overlooked genre. It is highly recommended.

From Wild Tyme

Castle Crashers, for the Xbox 360. Available for download from Xbox Live Arcade, for 1200 Microsoft points (~$15 or £10). Game played until completion of story mode.

Visit the Castle Crashers Official Website here.
Play The Behemoth's original flash-based shooter Alien Hominid for free here.

Friday, 5 September 2008

[39] What's Going On

The last few weeks have been busy and stressful, hence the lack of content on this blog. Here are a few notes on what has been happening (personal / boring).

- I am currently in Manchester, at my parent's house.
- I am currently looking for a job in London (I have applied to a couple of University jobs, but we'll see how that goes).
- I am also looking for a place to live in London. I have been down with the girl a couple of times over the last 2-3 weeks. These trips haven't been very successful, but we're sticking at it.
- I have started contributing to CC2K on a weekly basis, writing the Thursday edition of the Morning News Roundup.

There's not much else really. I have been reading through the trade paperbacks of the Warren Ellis / Darick Robertson comic Transmetropolitan. I originally started reading Transmet back in 2000-2001. However, for various reasons I only read up to the release of the 8th TPB, Dirge. I recently discovered that Vertigo are reprinting, and in most cases re-ordering the trades for Transmet, so I'm going to try and snap up the final two volumes now. I'd like to promise an article on the series once I've read the ending, but who knows if I'll get the chance to.

I'll sign off with an interesting video I found on youtube. Black Sabbath's Children of the Grave (great tune), with a video-slideshow made up of the Transmetropolitan covers.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

[38] Top Albums of 'The Worst Year for Pop', 1985

In a recent article on Peter Brewis' The Week That Was project, in Uncut Magazine, the writer boldly states that 'There's long been a critical consensus that the worst ever year for pop was 1985'. This didn't sit so well in my mind as I read it, and the reasons didn't convince me either ('post-punk fizzed out, indie yet to start shambling, house not yet jacked up'). It is later revealed that this was a lead-in, as with most articles on Brewis (or his brother David, or their Field Music empire), to a one-note, shock-horror tidbit that a great, contemporary band is influenced by (apparently) 'uncool' music. Brewis' reply? '1985? But that was the year Hounds of Love came out!'.

Much has been made of the Brothers Brewis and their love for (again, apparently) 'uncool' music; writers pick up on the influences from Peter Gabriel, Japan and Fleetwood Mac - acts and artists which, in the grand scheme of things, crafted brilliant music. It might reveal the neophilic, or fad-obsessed, nature of the British music press that something out of current fashion is therefore uncool and must-avoid. It is also ignorant and short-sighted. 1985 is home to some of the great albums in English-language pop music history, as well as some which have been unduly overlooked. Here are some of my favourites.

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--The Classics--

The Replacements - Tim



I can't help but feel that whoever decided that 1985 was a bad year for music must be ignoring the innovations in the American mid-west. Tim, the Replacements first album after being signed to major label Sire records, was produced by Tommy Ramone. Frontman Paul Westerberg always favoured narratives about layabouts, dropouts or general against-the-grain types. However, with Tim and its predecessor Let It Be had abandoned, The Replacements had abandoned their snotty punk roots for a more classic, if shambling, pop-rock feel. Tim collects a slightly more eclectic set of tunes, including the rock-and-roll shuffle of 'Kiss Me On The Bus', the guitar-and-strings ode to missed-opportunity 'Here Comes a Regular' and 'Left of the Dial', an anthem to college radio as a cultural touchstone.

Husker Du - New Day Rising / Flip Your Wig



Husker Du were a prolific band, releasing 7 LPs worth of music during their 1984-1987 peak. Even though 1984's Zen Arcade is often held up as their masterpiece, their two albums from 1985 are my favourites. These albums show a band pushing the boundaries of the still-nascent genre of hardcore punk, following their muses by adding melody, harmony and expanded arrangements, in turn creating the space for such musical tags as 'grunge' and 'alternative rock'. New Day Rising is a pop-hardcore album, featuring the whimsical epic 'Celebrated Summer', with its ebb-and-flow structure and acoustic refrain, breakneck riff-rocker 'I Apologize', and the piano-driven 'Books About UFOs'. Flip Your Wig, recorded months later on the cusp of a major-label record deal, is a lighter affair. The guitars are given a less-abrasive crunch, and vocals are more-plainly sung. Indeed, 'Green Eyes' is a prototypical alt-lovesong. These albums are littered with tight, impassioned gems.

Jesus and Mary Chain - Psychocandy



Some lads from Scotland marry bubblegum pop song structures to devastating walls of feedback and noise. Little more can be said of this album, as its border-crossing innovation is almost self-evident. The album is a true successor to the Velvet Underground of White Light / White Heat. It also birthed some major alternative pop songs of the 1980s, including 'Some Candy Talking' (on some versions), 'Never Understand', 'You Trip Me Up' and 'Just Like Honey'. Jesus and Mary Chain arguably invented the concept of 'beautiful noise' - an idea that independent music can utilise dissonance and abrasive production techniques to reap ethereal and atmospheric rewards. Feedback was previously a joke (see the still-prevalent reaction to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music), and this helped kick off the cross-Atlantic dialogue that resulted in landmark works from Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Slint - right up until the rise of 'post-rock' in the mid-1990s.

Tom Waits - Rain Dogs



If I am ever asked about my favourite Tom Waits albums, I unfailingly choose an album from the 1970s (Closing Time or Small Change) or the 1990s-2000s (Bone Machine, Alice, Orphans). Rain Dogs rarely gets a look in. However, it is one of his most critically-acclaimed albums (is often the highest-charting, or only Waits album in those 'Top 100' lists). It is certainly a triumph, as his reinvention from 1983's Swordfishtrombones blossoms, and is married to possibly the most genre-bending set of songs he has ever committed to a single record. Boozy-bluesy numbers ('Tango 'til They're Sore', 'Big Black Mariah') rubs shoulders with demented sea-shanties ('Singapore'), otherworldly rock and roll ('Jockey Full of Bourbon', 'Union Square') and doses of pure pop ('Time', 'Downtown Train'). It is a greatly inspired, organic album - full of unique sounds and ballsy instrumentation, anchored by Waits' versatile, yet distinctive voice.

New Order - Low-Life



Even though you will find none of New Order's big hits on Low-Life, it is probably their most cohesive and satisfying album statement (rivalled only by 2001's Get Ready). The album still has its fair share of synth-pop ('The Perfect Kiss', 'Sub-Culture'), but the real surprises of the album are in New Order's expanding ambition. Opener 'Love Vigilantes', with its melodica and acoustic guitar, is one of their most organic pop songs; the stately grace of 'Elegia', an instrumental piece dedicated to Ian Curtis, shows a depth, wisdom and economy rarely replicated across their output; equally, the towering synths that introduce 'Sunrise' erupt into a careening rocker, featuring the most furious guitar performance from Bernard Sumner since Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures.

#######

--The Semi-Classics--

The Smiths - Meat is Murder



Meat Is Murder is the ugly child of The Smiths' otherwise impeccable back-catalogue. It is sandwiched between two of their most unified, pristine albums (1984's The Smiths, and 1986's The Queen Is Dead), as well as the brilliant compilation Hatful of Hollow. This album saw Morrissey/Marr experimenting with different genres and approaches - incorporating funk on 'Barbarism Begins at Home' and politically-explicit grandstanding on the title track. Not everything sticks (they would be more successfully-eclectic on 1987's Strangeways, Here We Come), but the album does feature some of the band's best second-tier tracks, including 'That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore', 'The Headmaster Ritual' and (depending on the release) the classic 'How Soon is Now?'.

The Cult - Love



A wonderful blend of psychedelic, goth, post-punk and flat-out rock and roll. While not a perfect album, this is The Cult's high point, where Duffy's mixture of Echo and the Bunnymen atmosphere and AC/DC riffs were perfectly balanced, and Ian Astbury's Jim-Morrison-gone-shaman act was still attached to great hooks. 'She Sells Sanctuary' is a worthy hit, but is joined by such tracks as 'Revolution', 'Love', 'Nirvana' and 'Rain' as forming a tantalising blueprint for what '80s mainstream rock could have been.

Tears for Fears - Songs From the Big Chair



Tears For Fears, like many British pop acts of the time, have mostly been left to nostalgia and kitsch by the music press. However, their sophisticated approach to the pop song is quite unique. Songs From the Big Chair features some of their biggest hits, such as 'Shout' and 'Everybody Wants To Rule the World'. It also features 'Head Over Heels', featured here as part of a miniature song-suite with the track 'Broken'.

Oingo Boingo - Dead Man's Party



A pure party favourite. Again, Oingo Boingo have mostly been relegated to the nostalgia-file, or as a trivia tidbit as 'What Danny Elfman Did Before He Scored Films'. Nevertheless, Dead Man's Party features some of the best New Wave party-pop tracks. Elfman's powerful, schizophrenic vocals are only part of the constantly shifting, detailed arrangements on this album. Opener 'Just Another Day' is pure anthemic paranoia, and the album's other high points (the perfect Halloween song that is the title track, the ballad 'Stay', or the closer, 'Weird Science') display caffeine-fuelled charisma and inspired musicianship.

The Cure - The Head on the Door



By 1985, The Cure had settled on a winning formula. They had moved from pop-punk (Three Imaginary Boys) to insular depressive post-punk (Pornography) and bizarre drug-haze psychedelia (The Top) to what would soon be called 'Alternative Rock'. The album boasted some of their best (and popular) songs, including 'In Between Days', 'Close to Me' and 'A Night Like This'. However, like this album's successor, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, the singles outshine the album itself.

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--Notables and Honorable Mentions (in 5 words)--

Marillion - Misplaced Childhood (The Best Prog-Pop Album Ever)
Slayer - Hell Awaits (Just Not Reign In Blood)
Felt - Ignite the Seven Cannons (Felt meets Cocteau Twins, inconsistent)
Bob Dylan - Biograph (Hits meet Rarities - Great Compilation)